“No,” Rocky said. “Oh hell no.”
“Merry Christmas to you too,” I said. “And for your information, this wasn’t my idea.”
“Where’s Poppy?” Rocky peered past me into the rain, looking for my grandfather, Fausto Poppa—of Poppa’s House. You’ve seen the program. Everyone’s seen the program. It’s America’s longest running cooking show. It’s been on the air longer than there’s been a Food Network.
I said tersely, “Poppy’s sick. He’s got the flu. Why else would I be here?”
Rocky drew himself up to his full height. Which is…my height, which is medium. Yes, he wears it better, although why assorted piercings and tattoos should make a guy look taller, I don’t know. What I did know was that his green eyes were level with mine—and it was very weird to be this close to him again.
That’s how long it had been. Eight weeks since we last spoke. If spoke is the right word. We’d been speaking at the top of our lungs.
“Who knows with you, Jesse,” Rocky said. “Maybe you’re looking for fresh content for your blog. Or maybe you got some crazy idea to come by and peek in my windows to see who I’m banging this week.”
“Yeah right. Maybe I’m trying to steal your secret sauce recipe. Dream on. And I never peeked in your windows!”
“That’s right,” Rocky said. “You didn’t bother with shit like proof or evidence. How could I forget? Oh! Maybe you’re here because it finally occurred to you, you owe me an apology.”
I laughed. Loudly. The sound sailed through the pine trees and ricocheted off the surrounding mountains. Assuming there were mountains behind that ominous wall of cloud and mist. “Have you been hitting the eggnog? I’m here because if I hadn’t agreed to this, Poppy would have dragged himself out of bed and tried to drive up here. That’s the only reason I’m here.”
Here being the rain-slick deck of Rocky’s A-Frame in Big Bear. Big Bear or Big Bear Lake is a summer and ski resort located in the San Bernardino Mountains. It’s surrounded by national forest, which is not my natural habitat. But Rocky grew up here. His first real gig was prep cook in a ski lodge. He calls the cabin his “hideout.”
Warmth and the smell of woodsmoke and coffee wafted out from behind Rocky’s sturdy form. I shivered. There’s nothing like rain down the back of your neck to make you feel unloved and unwanted.
Rocky eyed me for a long, scowling moment. His curly brown hair was looking wilder than usual and he hadn’t shaved in days. Going for the whole mountain man vibe, I guess. “I don’t think this is a good idea,” he said at last.
“I think it’s a terrible idea,” I agreed. “But this is what the client wanted.”
“If there really is a client.”
I gaped at him. “If there really is a client? I hope you’re kidding because otherwise you’re delusional and that might freak out the network honchos.”
I was probably overdoing it. Anyway, I could have been talking to myself. Rocky held up a hand as though to tick off a very long list. “First of all, you can’t cook your way out of a paper bag.”
That stung. “I can cook. I don’t have my own show or my own restaurant, but most people don’t. I know my way around the kitchen.”
“You always knew where the door was, yeah.”
I curled my lip. “Forget the cooking gig, you should do comedy. So do I get my gear out of my car or are you canceling? There’s no refund for your friend. That needs to be understood.”
His blunt features tightened. Even the tiny gold studs in his eyebrows seemed to bristle. “Who is this supposed friend? I want to know his name.”
“Are you so sure it’s a he?” I asked slyly.
Rocky looked startled and then alarmed, and I laughed. Rocky is out. Out on TV and out in real life, but it’s surprising how many women see “the gay” as a challenge.
Of course my laughing irritated him all the more, which I guess was kind of what I intended. He said stubbornly, “I’m still not convinced there is any friend.”
“I admit I can’t see why anyone would want to do something nice for you,” I said. “But you do have your fans, as we both know.”
His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t bite. He continued to stand there, scowling at me and thinking whatever it was he was thinking. Rocky’s the methodical type. Not slow, but never impulsive. He can’t be rushed. He doesn’t get mad easily, but once he is mad, he pretty much stays mad forever.
I stared right back at him. My gaze flicked to his full-lipped, sensual mouth. I made myself meet his eyes again. I read emotion there, but I wasn’t sure what the emotion was. Probably wariness, distrust, suspicion. Turnabout was fair play after all.
I said, “Okay, fine. And when your date shows up and there’s no romantic dinner for two, despite the generous fee he paid, you can explain why.” I turned to go.
Rocky said, “Just a minute.”
I turned back, shoved my hands in my pockets, rocked back on my heels like it didn’t matter to me one way or the other. My heart was pounding so hard I’m surprised he couldn’t see it beneath my jacket.
“Why would you agree to do this?”
I said, “I told you. So Poppy wouldn’t have to make a two-hour drive when he’s sick.”
“He could have asked anyone. He could have asked Louisa.”
Louisa is my mother. She’s the Louisa behind all those Bella Louisa Cooks books as well as the Beverly Hills restaurant.
“First, that would be disrespectful to you to just hand it off to anyone. As I’d think you would be the first to point out, given how highly you think of yourself. Even if Poppy could find someone on Christmas Eve. Which he couldn’t. Secondly, there’s no way my mom can leave the restaurant tonight. As you well know.” Christmas Eve at Bella Louisa’s is a major event. All hands on deck. Even Poppy makes an appearance. Rocky had helped to cook his share of holiday feasts back in the day.
I scowled. “What thirdly?”
Rocky watched me, waiting.
I drew a deep breath. “Thirdly,” I said, “maybe I wanted to do this—” he began to shake his head in what looked like repudiation and I hurried to finish, “because there’s no reason we can’t be friends, right? I mean, even if—though—the other is over. We can be friends. It’s easier on everybody if we’re friends. And friends…cook for friends.”
“Not if you’re the one cooking.” But he was grinning that big evil grin of his like a cartoon red devil. Some people found it sort of charming. I used to be one of them.
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